Learning about the Legacies that came before Us...
Benjamin Banneker, (born November 9, 1731, Banneky farm [now in Oella], Maryland [U.S.]—died October 19? [see Researcher’s Note], 1806, Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.), mathematician, astronomer, compiler of almanacs, inventor, and writer, one of the first important African American intellectuals.
Banneker, a freeman, was raised on a farm near Baltimore that he would eventually inherit from his father. Although he periodically attended a one-room Quaker schoolhouse, Banneker was largely self-educated and did much of his learning through the voracious reading of borrowed books. Early on he demonstrated a particular facility for mathematics. While still a young man (probably about age 20), he built a wooden clock that kept precise time. Banneker was encouraged in the study of astronomy by George Ellicott, a Quaker and amateur astronomer whose family owned nearby mills. As early as 1788, Banneker began to make astronomical calculations, and he accurately predicted a solar eclipse that occurred in 1789. In 1791, while working with Andrew Ellicott and others in surveying the land that would become Washington, D.C., Banneker made other astronomical observations.
Willie O’Ree, byname of William O’Ree, (born October 15, 1935, Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada), the first Black hockey player to play in a National Hockey League (NHL) game. He debuted with the Boston Bruins against the Montreal Canadiens at the Montreal Forum on January 18, 1958. William O’Ree was raised in a large family in Fredericton, New Brunswick. He was the youngest of 13 children of parents Rosebud and Harry. O’Ree’s grandparents came to Canada from the United States through the Underground Railroad to escape slavery. While O’Ree was growing up, only two Black families lived in Fredericton. O’Ree’s father, Harry, was a civil engineer who worked in the city’s road maintenance industry. O’Ree started playing hockey at age three and organized hockey at age five. He instantly had a passion for the game. O’Ree played regularly on the backyard rink of the family home and skated to school when weather permitted.
Bessie Coleman soared across the sky as the first woman of African American and Native American descent to earn her pilot’s license in the U.S. Known for performing flying tricks, Coleman’s nicknames were: “Brave Bessie,” “Queen Bess,” and “The Only Race Aviatrix in the World.” Her goal was to encourage women and African Americans to reach their dreams – and this became her legacy. Though her life and career were cut short in a tragic plane crash, her life and legacy continue to inspire people around the world.
Born in Atlanta, Texas on January 26, 1892, Bessie Coleman had twelve brothers and sisters. Her mother, Susan Coleman, was an African American maid, and her father George Coleman was a sharecropper of mixed Native American and African American descent. In 1901, her father decided to move back to Oklahoma to try to escape discrimination. Coleman’s mother decided not to go with him. Instead, Coleman, her mother, and siblings stayed in Waxahachie, Texas. Coleman grew up helping her mother pick cotton and wash laundry to earn extra money. By the time she was eighteen, she saved enough money to attend the Colored Agricultural and Normal University (now Langston University) in Langston, Oklahoma. She dropped out of college after only one semester because she could no longer afford tuition.
More than 75 years after she served in World War II, Cresencia “Joyce” Garcia was finally being remembered. When her name was called, the Puerto Rican–born veteran did her best to stand as straight as possible, despite the fatigue and curved spine that come with turning 102 years old. Her vision and her Alzheimer’s-ravaged memory weren’t all there anymore either, but with the standing ovation she received at Carnegie Hall on Veteran’s Day 2021, she could finally feel the joy and relief that comes with recognition after decades of rejection. The women from the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion were in charge of clearing the backlog of mail to help soldiers stay in touch with loved ones. “No mail, low morale” was their motto. Many lost their lives overseas, and Cummings had spent four years finding survivors. Cummings convinced Congress to award a Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor given in the United States, to the six remaining survivors of the 6888—the only female military unit to receive this honor.
Justice A.A. Birch
Adolpho A. Birch, Jr. (September 22, 1932 – August 25, 2011) was an American lawyer and judge who was the first African American to serve as Chief Justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court. Birch was born in Washington, D.C. in 1932 and grew up in that city, the son of an Episcopal priest who was widowed early and subsequently raised his son as a single parent. His father’s professional concerns for his parishioners left Birch with much time on his own, and he often raised small amounts of money for himself by picking up soft drink bottles for their deposit values, and generally learned to function independently.
Birch graduated from Washington’s well-known Dunbar High School in 1950. After high school he attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania from 1950 to 1952. He then attended Howard University in Washington, where he earned the Bachelor of Arts and Doctor of Jurisprudence degrees, serving on the law review 1954-56 and graduating in 1956. He also joined Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity while in college. A Naval Reservist, he served on active duty 1956–1958.
Stone’s love for the game began when she was a child. At age 10 she played in a league sponsored by a cereal company. At age 15 she began playing with the St. Paul Giants, a men’s semiprofessional team. After graduating from high school, Stone moved to California to live with her sister. She soon began playing centre field for the American Legion team. From there she moved to the San Francisco Sea Lions, where her batting average was .280. Stone then secured a position with the Negro league All Star team. In 1949 she began playing second base for the minor league New Orleans Creoles, and in 1953 she joined the Indianapolis Clowns, playing the same position.
Ida B. Wells
African-American journalist and activist who led an anti-lynching crusade in the United States in the 1890s. She also fought for woman suffrage. In 1892, Wells turned her attention to anti-lynching after a friend and two of his business associates were murdered. Tom Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Will Stewart started a grocery store, which drew customers away from a white-owned store in the neighborhood. The white store owner and his supporters clashed with Moss, McDowell, and Stewart on multiple occasions. She brought her anti-lynching campaign to the White House in 1898 and called for President McKinley to make reforms. In 1896, Wells formed several civil rights organizations, including the National Association of Colored Women. After brutal attacks on the African American community in Springfield, Illinois in 1908, Wells took action. In 1909, she attended a conference for an organization that would later become the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Though she is considered a founder of the NAACP, Wells cut ties with the organization because she felt it that in its infancy it lacked action-based initiatives.
Hiram Revels of Mississippi became the first African American senator in 1870. Born in North Carolina in 1827, Revels attended Knox College in Illinois and later served as minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore, Maryland. He raised two black regiments during the Civil War and fought at the Battle of Vicksburg in Mississippi. The Mississippi state legislature sent him to fill a vacancy in the U.S. Senate during Reconstruction, and he quickly became an outspoken opponent of racial segregation. Although Revels's term in the Senate lasted just a year, he broke new ground for African Americans in Congress.
Garrett A. Morgan
Morgan was always interested in inventions. His tailoring business was equipped with machines that he personally designed. During the 1910s and 1920s, Morgan continued to invent new items. Most of these items were to improve safety on the streets and in the workplace. Morgan was most famous for patenting the first traffic signal in the United States. Morgan, himself an automobile owner, witnessed a crash between a car and a buggy. This event supposedly convinced the inventor to create the stoplight. On November 20, 1923, Morgan received his patent. His traffic signal was mounted on a T-shaped pole. It had three different types of signals stop, go, and stop in all directions. The stop in all directions signal was to allow pedestrians to cross streets safely. Morgan eventually patented this device in Canada and Great Britain as well. He sold his patent to General Electric Corporation for forty thousand dollars.
Rising star Misty Copeland makes history as the first African American Female Principal Dancer with the prestigious American Ballet Theatre.
When she discovered ballet, however, Misty was living in a shabby motel room, struggling with her five siblings for a place to sleep on the floor. A true prodigy, she was dancing en pointe within three months of taking her first dance class and performing professionally in just over a year: a feat unheard of for any classical dancer.
Shirley Ann Jackson PH.D.
A theoretical physicist, Dr. Jackson has had a distinguished career that includes senior leadership positions in academia, government, industry, and research. She holds an S.B. in Physics, and a Ph.D. in Theoretical Elementary Particle Physics — both from MIT. She is the first African American woman to receive a doctorate from MIT — in any field — and has been a trailblazer throughout her career, including as the first African-American woman to lead a top-ranked research university.
Being handpicked to be one of three black students to integrate West Virginia’s graduate schools is something that many people would consider one of their life’s most notable moments, but it’s just one of several breakthroughs that have marked Katherine Johnson’s long and remarkable life. Born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, in 1918, her intense curiosity and brilliance with numbers vaulted her ahead several grades in school. By 13, she was attending the high school on the campus of historically black West Virginia State College. At 18, she enrolled in the college itself, where she made quick work of the school’s math curriculum and found a mentor in math professor W. W. Schieffelin Claytor, the third African American to earn a PhD in mathematics. She graduated with highest honors in 1937 and took a job teaching at a black public school in Virginia.
Florence Beatrice (Smith) Price became the first black female composer to have a symphony performed by a major American orchestra when Music Director Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra played the world premiere of her Symphony No. 1 in E minor on June 15, 1933, on one of four concerts presented at The Auditorium Theatre from June 14 through June 17 during Chicago’s Century of Progress Exposition. The historic June 15th concert entitled “The Negro in Music” also included works by Harry T. Burleigh, Roland Hayes, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and John Alden Carpenter performed by Margaret A. Bonds, pianist and tenor Roland Hayes with the orchestra. Florence Price’s symphony had come to the attention of Stock when it won first prize in the prestigious Wanamaker Competition held the previous year.
Sidney Poitier was born on February 20, 1927 in Miami, FL. He was born premature to his parents who were tomato farmers that traveled to and from Florida and the Bahamas. At the age of 15 his father sent him to Miami to live with an older brother in hopes that he would have better opportunities. However, he did not like Miami and after a while moved to New York. This is where he tried his hand at acting, but due to a heavy accent and limited schooling and issues having trouble reading, this brought him great difficulties. Sidney did not let this stop him and conquered both of these and became the first African American to win an Oscar in 1963.
Guion S. Bluford Jr.
Dr. Guion “Guy” S. Bluford Jr. (Colonel, USAF, Ret.) was the first African American to fly in space. He was also the first African American to return to space a second, third and fourth time. As the first African American to be awarded United States Air Force Command Pilot Astronaut Wings, he has logged over 5200 hours in high performance jet aircraft and has flown 688 hours in space.
Dr. Percy Julian
Percy Julian was a pioneering chemist who was not allowed to attend high school but went on to earn his Ph.D. His research at academic and corporate institutions led to the chemical synthesis of drugs to treat glaucoma and arthritis, and although his race presented challenges at every turn, he is regarded as one of the most influential chemists in American history.
Thurgood Marshall was the first African American to serve on the United States Supreme Court. He was a civil rights activist with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Marshall was born on July 2, 1908 in Baltimore, Maryland, the great-grandson of a slave. His father, William Marshall, a railroad porter, instilled in him an appreciation of the Constitution at an early age. When young Marshall got in trouble at school he was required to memorize sections of the US Constitution. His mother, Norma Arica Williams, an elementary school teacher for 25 years, placed great emphasis on his overall scholarship.
Marie Van Brittan Brown
Marie Van Brittan Brown felt uneasy in her neighborhood and the police were unreliable. So, she took matters in her own hands and patented the modern home security system. Over 50 years later, the technology is installed in millions of homes and offices worldwide.
Brown was a 43-year-old African American nurse who worked long, late hours before returning home to Jamaica, Queens in New York City. Her husband, Albert Brown, an electronics technician, was away many nights. Crime in their neighborhood was high, and police were often slow to respond to emergency calls.
Brown needed a way to feel safer in her apartment. Specifically, she wanted a way to see and hear who was at the door — from any room in the house.
In 1966, Brown designed a closed-circuit security system that monitored visitors via camera and projected their images onto a television monitor. Not only that, a panic button contacted the police immediately. Brown envisioned a series of three to four peepholes at various heights; a camera would slide over these peepholes to assess the outside area. A radio-controlled wireless system would transfer the image to a monitor, or set of monitors, positioned anywhere in the residence. At the monitor, a resident could not only see who was at the door, she could also talk with that person via a set of two-way microphones. A remote control option allowed her to lock or unlock the door from a safe, or more convenient distance.
(09/14/1915 - 09/19/2001) Born in the Florida Everglades, Mabel was an African American and Native American women that helped paved the way for minorities to compete in figure skating. She became inspired to skate after seeing kids skate at Central Park's ice rink in New York City in 1925. She went and purchased her first pair of used skates that were two sizes too big. She stuffed them with cotton so she could begin practicing. Because of her race, she was not allowed to skate at a local ice rink, but she came back day after day until the manager let her skate. In the 1930's, she was not allowed to compete in the national qualifying event for the Olympics or any other competition. She continued to skate and performed in New York shows in the 1940's and wore pink or purple skate boots rather than the common white or black boots. After relocating to Los Angeles she began touring internationally with the Ice Capades. She would later return to the U.S. and began coaching others such as Scot Hamilton, Kristi Yamaguchi, and Debi Thomas. In 1997 she became the first African American inducted into the US Figure Skating Hall of Fame. Her legacy continues to inspire all skaters with her resilience and perseverance.